Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Hay que matar un chancho para apreciar el puerco (You have to kill a pig to appreciate pork)

One of my morning rituals, both here in Costa Rica, but as well in the United States, is to wake up with a freshly brewed cup of joe.  Coffee helps me focus and gives me the stimulus to face whatever tasks I have ahead of me for the day.  Although I’ve previously seen the roasting process at a coffee museum in Antigua, Guatemala, I’ve never actually performed any of the work that is necessary to bring the precious bean from the cafetal to my lips until my latest visit to my host family’s house in San Juan Norte in the mountains of the Distrito de Cartago, bordering San José, which in the past 30 years has seen many changes.

Google Earth image of the small town of San Juan Norte
In the 1980s both electricity and asphalt arrived and with both came the ability for youth to be further exposed to the outside world and also have easier means to escape to it.  Young family members now prefer jobs that do not require manual labor, the majority of which are found outside of the region.  Sadly, this is the fate with Don Sergio’s family.  His son Andrés is a high school professor and he doesn’t have any other direct family members who would or could take over the family business.  Sergio turned 54 this year and watching him both pick and lug cajuelas (un canasto = una cajuela) of coffee on his back up the steep inclination where some of his coffee fields lie on the side of the mountain of Guardarrama (opposite the valley of San Juan Norte) induces a pang of sadness knowing that all the amor (for culture, landscape, family and love of that little bean) that Sergio has put into growing and picking coffee since his teenage years will likely have to be sold when he can no longer aguantar the backbreaking, heat-stroke inducing labor.  
“No estoy seguro que sea mejor reír o llorar,” dijo don Sergio.
“Reír es más rico que llorar. Vámonos.” le dije a él y salimos riendo juntos regresando a coger café.
Coffee farm/plantation (cafetal) near San Juan Norte
I was visiting my training host family for Christmas vacation knowing that this would be one of the last times I would be able to spend such quality family time with them.  I could have relaxed the entire time (December 24-27) being fed traditional tamales and all the rich and wonderful food that Doña Miriam so lovingly prepares and serves us without being asked for recompense.  However, my curiosity about café propelled me to ask to accompany Sergio out into the fields the day after Christmas and served to sweep away the Christmas cobwebs of laziness and overeating that had clouded over me over the previous two days.
I woke up at 5:20 am on the 26th and as we were returned from delivering the morning coffee to Sergio’s mother, Sergio noted my morning allergies and strategically mentioned that this year the coffee had a particular plaga which created a fine orange dust which would accumulate under the leaves of the mata and would aggravate my allergies (implied).  Subtly Tico, Sergio was trying to convince me that perhaps I didn’t know what I was in for.  Stubbornly, I refused to take no for an answer so he, I and three peones  (migrant workers from near Perez Zeledón), along with their 12 and 3 year old children (the older one charged with watching the younger one) cramped into in his old Toyota 4-wheel rumbo the other side of the valley.
A canasto (or cajuela) of coffee
Sergio gave the peones instructions on where to pick and brought me to a patch of café arriba which was on flatter ground where I could practice my skills without having to worry about falling off the mountain.  I was given a canasto, which fit loosely around my slender waist, and for which I was to toss the picked coffee. The mata was short and there was a mixture of both maduro and non-maduro café so you had to be  to leave the green beans  (non-maduros), which initially slowed down my work.
After time, I learned to pick with both hands, and through feel and instinct learned to distinguish the non-mature beans from the mature ones by how easily they fell from the branches as I quickly passed my hands over them.  Sergio and I worked mostly quietly, he not more than a calle away from me.  At one point we discussed the meditativeness of the process of picking: “No piensa en nada más que el café” noted  Sergio, “No tiene que pensar en sus problemas.”
We started at approximately 6 am and our first break was around 10 am.  We sat and ate a tamale and drank some coffee (how appropriate) while  producing small talk with the other workers.  Sergio joked to them: “Este hombre no sabes que es un gringo, un camote o mal-parido.” I responded, “Puede ser que soy probablemente una mezcla de las tres cosas.”
Ripe (or maduro) coffee beans (or granos)
We moved down to the terrain that was more inclinado and where the mata was much taller where you would have to bend the plant in order to pick the beans toward the top.  On some of the plants, I was surprised to find them so large, round and plump – almost the size of a grape.  Sergio mentioned that  picking grapes, as they do in California, is a similar process, but that grapes can stand more temperature variation than coffee and that likely the grapes themselves are a little more delicate.
The time passed quickly as we worked through lunch.  The sun beat down heavily and I found myself hiding in the shade to avoid getting too hot.  I had forgotten both hat (all other workers had one) and sunblock, so I was concerned not only of heatstroke, as I could feel my brain cook like a raw egg in the sun and I became slightly nauseous, but also of returning to the house burnt like a lobster.
We finished the day of picking at around 2:30 pm – usually the day ending between three and four pm.  I noted that I probably picked about half as much as Sergio, but also noted that he was both astonished and proud that I was able to keep up as much as I did and last the entire day.  Between five of us, we picked 51 ½ cajuelas during the 6 ½ hours of work.  We loaded the café and delivered the day’s sweat-labor to the nearest recibidor where Sergio was paid approximately 12 dollars a cajuela  (30 minutes to an hour’s work and only half of what was paid the year before).  At this price, Sergio would not even be able to cover the expenses he incurred the past year, much less pay for house expenses.
Learning to pick coffee has been one of my top experiences that I’ve had while in Costa Rica.   I’ve always imagined how difficult it would be to work harvesting, but now I know without a doubt. I also know how little even those that own the land may only gain very little, after expenses, depending on the whims of the agricultural markets. Además, this experience afforded me a unique opportunity to spend some time with my host father, Don Sergio, my dear friend and the man I most admire here in Costa Rica.
My American and Tico Family diuring family visit:
Melinda, Andrés, Miriam, Sergio, Stephen & Michael
photo taken by Betsy Lanning
Asked by Sergio later that evening why I wanted to learn to pick coffee, I responded. “Hay que matar un chancho para apreciar el puerco.”  I lift my cup of coffee this morning, “Un brindis, Don Sergio.  Gracias por compartir su labor y su cariño conmigo.  Estoy infinitamente agradecido.”
Don Sergio and Stephen near San Juan Norte


  1. Hi!

    I'm Elliot and next month I will be visiting Costa Rica with my girlfriend for a little vacation and wanted to get some tips from PCV's in country. I served in Armenia from 2008-2010.

    So, where in the capital is good to stay? Should we rent a car or not?


  2. Hi Elliot,

    Hope you enjoyed the post and its always good to hear from former PCVs.

    I can generally only speak of the low to middle-end options (Peace Corps budget) so here's where I'd suggest in that range:

    Aparhotel Cristina: - many PCVs and family stay at this very affordable low to mid-range budget hotel. I haven't stayed here personally, but comes recommended and has kitchen option if wanted.

    For an even lower budget hostel option, but usually quite private (private rooms + bathrooms available for a little over $30) is Mi Casa Hostel which is located in Sabana Norte:

    For a little pricier option and where the Embassy personnel stay is the Crown Plaza Corobici which is also near the Sabana: We've stayed here a couple of times - pool, gym and brunch.

    As far as renting a car, depends on how long you're staying and where you plan on going. If you want to go to the volcanoes you'll definitely need a car. If you're just going to Manuel Antonio for a week you can likely get away with bus and taxi if you're both adventurous. I can send you more information if you need re places to go, trusted taxi driver #'s in San Jose, etc. if you send me an email at

    Hope this is helpful and that you enjoy your vacation with your girlfriend!

  3. Bien ! Hi my friend!
    Podria visitar tu comunidad para.ayudar?
    Creo que seria.buena entrevista a tu bonita experiencia y traabajar en tu comunidad :-) pues estudio comunicacion educativa

  4. Since your last post was almost a year ago, I am not sure you are still in country, but:

    I am a Samoa RPCV (07-09) and I am looking to connect with Peace Corps in Costa Rica.I will be reaching out to others through their blogs as well.

    I work for the Kelley School of Business Institute for International Business and I am assisting our faculty director with a program that will take 20 undergraduates to Costa Rica this summer.

    The course focuses on social entrepreneurship and I am arranging site visits for the students while we are in the San Jose area in early May.

    If you are aware of any social entrepreneurs or social enterprise activities you can recommend, I would greatly appreciate it.

    In addition, if you could connect me with other volunteers that may have connections to social entrepreneurs that would be wonderful.

    Finally, we would be interested in Skyping with a PCV prior to our departure to learn about your experience and cultural differences you have experienced. We may also be able to bring a PCV into San Jose to talk with the students.

    Of course, I can always bring items in my luggage that people may be missing as well.

    Thanks for your help, Sara Reeves (reevess [at] indiana [dot] edu)

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Yo! Fellow RPCV! You might enjoy my new book titled Travels in South America. Check it out.